The Federal Trade Commission has just wrapped up an important conference that was organized to give the agency a better sense of the challenges that technology will pose to consumers in the next 10 years. Unfortunately titled “Protecting Consumers in the Next Tech-ade,” the conference brought together industry leaders and consumer advocates to talk about advertising, RFID, social networking, and user-generated content. Packing a crowd of people into an auditorium to talk about social networking isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, so the proceedings were livened up with video clips. The conference concluded with one about a “cyber patriot,” a reenactor who “uses cell phones and laptops to convene and reenact the French and Indian War,” according to the official blog of the event. Good times.
The “cyber patriot” aside, the conference focused extensively on consumer privacy and the ways that it can be eroded by new technologies. Marcia Hofmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out that “there are few market incentives to protect consumer privacy,” but the advertisers who spoke did not (surprise) see it that way. Most of them believed that there were market incentives in place to pay attention to privacy concerns; one solid consumer backlash over a privacy scandal could be enough to damage a brand.
Joshua Smith, from Intel Research Seattle, showed a video clip demonstrating how RFID can help the elderly and the children who need to
spy keep an eye on them. He demonstrated an RFID reader built into a bracelet that can read tags found in household objects such as toothbrushes. If you need to know how many times Grandpa opened his pill bottle, brushed his teeth, or moved from room to room, just check the RFID log. Such technologies have privacy implications, of course, but it’s not clear that consumers are always aware of them.
In closing remarks to the conference, Lydia Parnes, the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection said that many consumers are overwhelmed by new technologies that they do not fully understand. While allowing users to opt out of certain types of information-gathering practices is worthwhile, Parnes’ comments suggest that many users remain unaware of what information is collected on them and how it can be used. Giving people choice without context will not automatically provide consumer protection. (This was also the claim made in the recent FTC complaint filed against Microsoft and others in the advertising business.)
The FTC is trying to get a handle on the sorts of issues likely to become a problem in the next decade. At the moment, their Internet enforcement is usually directed at spammers and adware vendors, and it’s not clear whether they’ll have the resources to add new areas of enforcement. The agency has just announced a settlement with Zango, for instance, for $3 million over that company’s adware programs, and has secured another $50,000 from a spammer. Ten years from now, we suspect they’ll still be fighting this battle.